The Secret Life of Lionel Richardson (Oops, I mean…)

Review copy

The Secret Life of Violet Grant: A historical romance about 2 simultaneously historical characters, one in 1964 and one in 1914. I found this to be a quick, light read, engaging and fun, but kind of annoying in the end.

Before I explain why this book bugged me a little bit, I’ll start with the positives, because I did finish reading it and I did enjoy it.

Spoilers past this point.

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Vivian

Vivacious Vivian. This character was colourful and fun, and her relationship with Gogo was also fun, even though their relationship was kind of built entirely around men. I enjoyed her narration, and her unpredictability, and her boldness. I’m on board with a young woman who goes out and gets things done for herself.

Her relationship with Doctor Paul was okay. She was enthusiastic, for her part. I found him pushy, but maybe I’m extra-sensitive to these things. Or maybe he only seemed okay because he was being juxtaposed against Evil Incarnate [Walter]. Anyway, Viv’s main story arc was not Dr. P, it was Violet, which is also pretty bad-ass of her.

Violet

Female scientist in the 1910’s? Yes, please.

I just GET Violet. Y’know? That’s how I know she was well written, because I get her. Things Violet and I have in common: We’re in traditionally male-dominated fields, we’re hardworking, we don’t like networking, we think our results should speak for themselves, we hate parties, we are unable to hide our annoyance at misogynistic comments (or anything else), and don’t get us started about whatever thing we have an opinion on because… (cue everyone tuning us out).

Walter

Couldn’t wait for him to die. What a despicable character. He starts off a little sleazy and every scene he’s in makes him worse, and worse, until he’s basically Dolores Umbridge. Then he gets shot. I like. Realistic evil, well-crafted, and unoffensively framed.

Plot

I don’t usually predict twists, when writing is good. They usually catch me way off guard. This one was no different. I saw nothing coming. Not the Dr. Paul and Gogo thing, not the whole WWI tie-in with the spies and all that, and definitely not that Lionel was alive at the end. Maybe I’m the only one who didn’t see it coming, but I had lower expectations, and I was proven wrong. Props for that, because I love getting caught off guard by a book!

Style

I loved the narrative because both ladies’ narratives suited their personalities. Vivian’s was personal, unpredictable, informal. Violet’s was methodical and impersonal. I also enjoyed the simultaneous storytelling, which created a lot of suspense when Viv would discover something and then we wouldn’t know what it was and then Violet would have a cliffhanger and we had to wait for Viv to discover it. Great pacing, great storytelling. A+ for style.

So, here’s the thing.

Lionel took over this story.

The Secret Life of Violet Grant should have been about the secret life of Violet Grant. Even Vivian recognizes that in-story. At one point, Tibby tells her flat-out that this story isn’t about Violet, it’s about Lionel.

I’d be okay with that if he’d been proven wrong.

In the beginning, I was right on board with Violet. Here was a young, smart, tenacious girl, taken on by the world’s biggest creep, Walter Grant. Ew, ew, ew. He calls her child. EW. They start up an affair, and then he marries her and drags her off to Berlin. (Why did I skip over that pregnancy thing? Because it was SO obviously heartbreaking and awful that I don’t even know. I’m still kind of reeling. And I don’t even like babies.) Her agency seeps away and she’s a shell of herself, just trying to do her work, pitied by all around her, while her husband marches around being the worst.

Fine. Good. These things happened then and they happen now. I counted down to the murder I’d been promised.

Enter: Lionel. He makes his first impression by being… attractive in the dark. Fine, I buy it. Then he tells Violet and Disgusting Walter that he doesn’t really believe in women’s rights, which is… charming. Then she falls for him, but resists because she’s a good girl. Cool. Fine. I’m in.

When the story ramps up toward the climax, and now Walter has maxed out on evilness when really he would have been killable shortly after we met him, Violet starts seeing Lionel as an escape. Convenient, that she’s attracted to him AND he means leaving Walter. It’s 1914, let’s not pretend that it was easy for women to leave their husbands and go off on their own. Lionel would be helpful. I’m still in.

And then, the plot kind of trips and falls. Because right where Violet should have been regaining some of her agency, her personality, Lionel goes off and kills Walter off-page. We hear about it later. Oh.

Then we learn that it wasn’t because he’s a rapist, either. It’s because he’s… a German spy.

Oh.

Then we learn that Lionel may not have even done it.

… Oh.

Then we learn that Lionel originally took Violet away because he needs company on his secret spy mission, not because he’s saving her from Walter the Sentient Pond Scum.

What?

Okay, okay, I realize that Lionel WANTED to save Violet, that was well-established. But the twist that they were going off on a WWI adventure took the spotlight off of the woman who, I feel, really needed it at this stage in her story. All this intrigue, all this plot. All these reasons to murder someone. All this build up for Violet to reclaim her life and her agency and her personality. But instead, rather than giving Violet the epic comeback I wholeheartedly believed she deserved, that comeback was given to Lionel.

I’m not going to critique Lionel’s character because I really don’t feel like he should have been the point. Violet was the point. Violet should have had the last word. I’m happy she had a happy ending and I’m happy she and Vivian got to meet because that was super cool and I liked both of these ladies a lot. But I just wish she had gotten to play more of a part in her own story, instead of being dragged along on somebody’s adventure that she knew absolutely nothing about until afterwards.

You know what would have been really cool? If Violet had set out on the mission knowingly. If she had used her many competencies to help with the effort. If she had unknowingly taken some action that actually got in the WAY of the undercover operation and accidentally revealed the whole thing, and THEN set out on the run with the rest of them. If she had been secretly told her husband was a spy and then tasked with killing him herself. (Okay, I really wanted Violet to kill him. I don’t think that’s a real flaw with this story, I just would have enjoyed it is all.)

Will I read more Beatriz Williams? Yes, absofruitly. She created characters I honestly cared about and others who I honestly wanted to see die, which is a title previously held by the Great GRRM. I’m not thrilled with the wrap-up of this particular tale, but there was potential here, and I’ll definitely read more.

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